By Rachel Shabi
21 August 2017
After just one episode, you can already see the kind of flack that Channel 4’s The State might face. This brutal, densely researched four-part drama following the lives of four Britons who join Islamic State in Syria is likely to stand accused of propagandising for the death cult. Channel 4 received calls to postpone the opening episode, as the daughter of aid worker David Haines, brutally beheaded by Isis, asked executives to delay following the recent Barcelona atrocity, in which 13 were killed and more than a hundred injured in a horrific, Isis-inspired vehicle attack. This series is relentlessly uncomfortable viewing throughout, offering no explanations and little back-story to the characters depicted, thereby raising more questions than it answers. As it should.
All of which makes it necessary viewing, a powerful antithesis to a recruitment video. While joining Isis may currently seem a heroic adventure to the four British protagonists, it probably won’t be much of a spoiler to say that things don’t go well for any of them, each in their own way forced to confront the vicious brutalities of militant group in its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
What’s disconcerting throughout, making this drama all the more effective, is that amid the horrific, all-encompassing violence (the most gruesome of which mercifully stays off-screen), the protagonists are humanised. According to the director, Peter Kosminsky, who was behind hits such as Wolf Hall and The Government Inspector, the four are fictitious composites drawn from interviews with people who joined Isis in Syria and who by now are most likely dead. These aren’t the brainless, heartless thugs we’d prefer them to be – we aren’t given this convenience with which to make any sense of their inexplicable choices.
Instead, the characters are disarmingly ordinary: modern, educated young British Muslims, their street slang and banter jarring grotesquely against the context they’re in, their naivety and pursuit of camaraderie almost relatable but for the fact of it having led them to join a murderous cult.
The State is by definition focused on a British story, but that inevitably means the Syrians and Iraqis in the frame, upon whom Isis has been inflicted, are present only as facilitators of plot development for the Jihadi leads. Unfortunately, the series can thereby fall into a familiar pattern when it comes to dramatisations of British involvement in “the Orient”, often only seen through a very British gaze.
Watching the series, you want to know more about the local characters, a fuller depiction of personalities and experience. These questions arise not least because of the uncertainties and complexities over what happens for Syrians in real life once Isis fighters have been defeated – as is now the case in Mosul, recaptured by Iraqi forces last month, and could be in Raqqa with the current US-backed military efforts to reclaim the city. Another unanswered component is that, 10 years after Kosminsky’s highly praised drama Britz, we have here another heavyweight series about, but not by, British Muslims – a critique not aimed at the director so much as at the narrowness of the TV drama-making industry as a whole.
Part of the power of The State is that it doesn’t fade – it provokes a range of reactions that linger long after it ends, questions you want to scream at the characters, testimony to the acting and scripting of the series.
This must go some way to explaining the appeal of such unflinching dramas: on some level, we know that casting Isis recruits as pure evil and slamming the door on the subject isn’t going to help us. This doubtless informs the drive to understand why seemingly everyday people who live alongside us are drawn into such incomprehensible brutality and violence. We aren’t looking for ways to excuse or to justify – neither of which is possible. We need to know purely in so much as any information, any sliver of light shed on the subject, might help our efforts to stop others from doing the same thing.
• Rachel Shabi writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East, including Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.